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The matinee idol of tennis

The matinee idol of tennis

What a sensation Anthony Wilding would have been today. The dashing New Zealander, who won eight Wimbledon crowns in the early years of the 20th century, had female spectators swooning because of his 'Manly brand of tennis' He was handsome, chivalrous and was always on the lookout for adventure. Wilding would have been a gift for the promoters, agents and advertising men who are so much a part of modern sport. As it was, he was tennis's first matinee idol.

In his time, players wore long trousers and women wore ankle length dresses. Racquets were made of wood, balls were white and a single umpire judged all line calls, without, of course, any electronic assistance. Newspapers of the day referred deferentially to "Mr Wilding" and Mrs Hillyard". Wildings was an era of serenity and decorum, long since gone. But if any player could have adapted to today, it would have been the bon vivant
New Zealander

He motorcycled around Europe on his bat-JAP, stopping off to play in the great tournaments of the Riviera, Germany, Serbia, Hungary, Sweden and Norway. He drove cars fast and shortly before the first world war, he became a pilot.
During the war Wilding worked in various positions for the British Army - from the Naval Brigade and the Royal Marines through to the Naval Air Force on the ground. He was a hero there as much as he was on the tennis court.

In his book On the Court and Off, he describes his first flight, at Rheims: "Suddenly the wretched engine began to misfire. I knew a misfire well by sight and sound, but at this moment it was more significant to me than ever before.We went at a great pace towards earth. Just as we looked like making a hole in it, the elevating planes seemed to be raised a bit and we glided up. The sensation was very fine, and I hope to have many more..." There were no more though. Captain Anthony Wilding died near Neuve Chapelle, France, on 9 May 1915 while fighting in the battle of Aubers Ridge. He was 31, vital, cheerful and about to marry American actor Maxine Elliot. The day before his death, he wrote to a friend: "For really the first time in seven and a half months, I have a job in hand which is likely to end in gun, I and the whole outfit being blown to hell.

However, it is a sporting chance and if we succeed, we will help our infantry no end. "I know the job exactly, and the objects in view from my study of them - it is the only way to play in business or war." Daily Telegraph tennis correspondent Andrew Wallis Myers, in his 1916 biography of Wilding, writes: "Wilding observed and directed the fire, both from the gun platform and the trench, all the time under the hottest counter -shelling.

It was miraculous that he was not hit, considering that the gun was four feet above the parapet of the trench. "When his gun crew came down into the trench, Wilding sought out a place to lie down, cracking a joke with his chief petty officer. More than one officer warned him not to go into the dugout. It was located directly in the danger zone and more exposed to the fire of the enemy. "But Anthony, acting always on his own judgement crawled in... Shells came hurtling near. It was one of the greatest trench bombardments of the war."At 4.45, there came a hearty burst of laughter from the dugout. Immediately afterwards , a heavy shell exploded on its roof... "Lying intact amid the wreckage, blown out of his pocket, was a gold cigarette case - souvenir of his Riviera lawn tennis triumphs in 1914." Wilding was born at Opawa, near Christchurch, on October 31, 1883, one of five children of Frederick (A barrister) and Julia.

The family owned a huge property called Fownhope. Frederick played cricket for New Zealand, was a good horseman, footballer, athlete and oarsman. Young Tony excelled at swimming, shooting, riding and cricket, but his life became inexorably linked with tennis once he started at Cambridge University n 1902. He played Wimbledon every year from 1904 to 1914 except 1909. He won the singles title four years in succession, 1910-13, and the doubles four times with Norman Brookes. At first his backhand was extremely weak - he hit it with the same side of his racket as his forehand. But after watching the Doherty brothers and other leading English players he perfected a more conventional backhand on the voyage from New Zealand to England in 1907.

He also received advice about physical training from former world heavyweight boxing champion Bob Fitzsimmons, another New Zealander. Wilding never drank alcohol and, unusually for the times, never smoked. And he trained, running two or three times a week and doing brisk walks, as well as playing tennis. He was invariably fitter than his opponents and won many of his big matches in five sets, one of the most famous being his 5-7, 1-6, 8-6, 7-5, 10-8 win over J. Clothier in the fourth round at Wimbledon in 1905. Brookes, an Australian, and Wilding combined to claim the Davis cup for Australasia from 1905 to 1909 and again in 1914. The greatest match of Wilding's career was the 1913 Wimbledon final against brilliant young American Maurice McLoughlin, nicknamed the Californian Comet. McLoughlin, with his big service and crunching forehand, was expected to deal summarily with Wilding. More than 7000 spectators turned up and the ticket scalpers had a field day. The New Zealander played superbly to win 8-6, 6-3, 10-8. So great was the crush afterwards that many women fainted and it was reported, "had to be laid out on the court beside the roller until they could be removed".

Wilding qualified for the New Zealand bar, but was never a working lawyer. He never packed, but merely crumpled his gear into a suitcase and shook it until it closed.

He'd rather be riding his motorcycle, or playing tennis with British Prime
Minister George Balfour or King Gustav of Sweden than appearing in court.He had an infectious personality, and was ever-popular.

But it was the quality of his tennis that really set him apart.

Brookes in 1950 complied a ranking list and put Wilding fourth behind Bill Tilden and the Dohertys, and ahead of Budge, Kramer, Lacoste and Perry. Pete Sampras in 2000 has been the only player to break Wilding's record of succesive Wimbledon wins. Brooke wrote: "His forehand was very powerful, with quite a lot of top spin, which made it difficult to volley. His backhand was very safe. He was a fine specimen of manhood physically and was blessed with an ability and steadfastness of character which helped him reach the highest pinnacle of tennis."Wilding was the idol of Wimbledon. When he lost the 1914 final to Brookes, it was reported: " There was a ripple of white throughout the stands as women took out their handkerchiefs and cried."Handsome, fair-haired and blue-eyed, he had a vibrand, debonair nature. As Wallis Myers wrote: "Physically and mentally he became a man; spiritually he was a boy until the end."

Text Excerpts copyright Ron Palanski (c) 2001 (From the book "Champions")
Our thanks to Wilf Schofield for his historical updates


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